Eric Rauchway. The Refuge of Affections: Family and American Reform Politics, 1900-1920. Columbia Studies in Contemporary American History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. xii + 237 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-12147-7.
Reviewed by Mark Pittenger (Department of History, University of Colorado)
Published on H-SHGAPE (June, 2002)
Family Values In The Age of Reform
Family Values In The Age of Reform
"Who Were the Progressives?" asks the title of a recent collection of essays on that much-studied conglomeration of do-gooders and efficiency-mongers. As that volume shows, scholars have found that Progressives were rural and urban, middle-class and working-class, male and female, black and white, immigrant and native-born, democratic and authoritarian, anxious and imperially self-confident. Eric Rauchway's elegant and gracefully written monograph does not attempt to engage with this vast array of groups and motivations; rather, he has new things to say about "Progressives" as defined in a rather old-fashioned way. His six principal characters were all native-born whites who began from a wide range of points on the social map, but who all ended up ensconced in New York City's comfortably-off reform community--particularly that part of it centering around Columbia University and the New Republic magazine--during the political era dominated by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Rauchway tells here the stories of three married couples--Dorothy Whitney Straight and Willard Straight, Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Wesley Clair Mitchell, and Mary Ritter Beard and Charles A. Beard--who sought to intertwine Progressive social activism with dynamic, intellectually engaged marriages and family lives. Looking both inward and outward from the doorstep of the home, they saw family not as an insular haven but as a model for modern social relations and an "engine" of reform that would extend those relations beyond the doorstep and out into a needful society (p. 3).
A story of marriages and families, this is especially a story of women who actively chose marriage between 1900 and 1912 while rejecting the dichotomous framework earlier articulated by Jane Addams, and repeatedly employed by later historians, between a "family claim" and a "social claim." This newer generation of reform-oriented women--Rauchway lists several other couples upon whom he might also have focused--chose marriage only after negotiating its public as well as its private meanings and goals with their prospective husbands. Rauchway also shows how these women, in order to make their families into outwardly directed reform enterprises, molded and changed the men they married into more socially committed and more activist scholars and public figures than they might otherwise have become. These Progressives used their conceptions of family "to describe the appropriate relation" between public and private realms, and between dominant and dependent individuals and groups, as well as to model the role of education--the preferred Progressive mode of promoting social change--in fostering independence and self-government (p. 2). Just as a family's goal was to effect its own obsolescence by training its charges for an independent, self-governing existence, so should reform activities and institutions--an apartment house for working women, the suffrage movement, a civics textbook, an experimental school and educational research bureau, the New Republic--promote civic education and political and social independence among the disenfranchised and the dependent.
The family served these reformers as an appropriate model, Rauchway argues, because it sheltered moral values of duty, obligation, and cooperation in a society that traditionally prized individual liberty, contractual relations, and money-making. But demurring at what he sees as the excessive claims of the "maternalist" school of historians, he insists that this was not an effort to extend "womanly" virtues of altruism and self-sacrifice into the public realm. Criticizing the tendency to reify the occasional and "historically contingent practice" of maternalist politics into an "ideologically informed culture" and therefore to see Progressivism as bifurcated into self-contained and opposing "masculinist" and "feminist" schools, Rauchway shows that his Progressive couples did not see the world in this starkly gendered way. Mary Ritter Beard's interest in women workers or Lucy Sprague Mitchell's focus on primary education did not bespeak a desire to put their uniquely "female" qualities to work in the public realm. Neither did Wesley Mitchell's or Willard Straight's wartime government work stem from hairy-chested Rooseveltian strenuosity or manly impulses to impose social control upon a disorderly polity. What all of these figures shared was a conviction that the family might serve both men and women as an "organizing principle" for building social progress (p. 16). In this view, Progressives did not simply search for order or authority; rather, on the model of parents teaching children, they sought to devolve power from their own class to the powerless, and to encourage "a progressively wider diffusion of rights and goods among the populace" (p. 16). It is to this idea of a developing social dynamic that Rauchway refers when he claims that these families' histories show us "what was progressive about Progressivism" (p. 17). They were paternalists, but as they saw it, only temporarily so.
Rauchway artfully links experience--that key Progressive intellectual category--to the formation of ideas and behavior in his characters' lives. >From their own experiences of education, maturation, and breaking loose from family, these reformers developed critical ideas about the social inequities they observed firsthand, as well as the faith that they could foster such maturing and self-liberation among their less fortunate peers, and ultimately, among successive generations. But in the end, the overwhelming experience for reformers of this era was not the forward flow of social progress, but the shocking catastrophe of war. Each of the three chapters devoted to the making of a progressive marriage and family ends with the couple's highest hopes--their "narrative of progress"--abruptly stalemated by this unforeseen "logic of events" (p. 155). Where Progressive families had sought to be engines of social change, spreading their influence outward to reshape society and the state, they now found that "the drive belts tended to run the other way" (p. 157). A newly-empowered state apparatus imposed its priorities on families, separating husbands from wives and parents from children, and valorizing starkly divided gender roles: warrior men and helpmeet women were now the order of the day. But rather than presenting a stereotypical image of wartime Progressivism gone militant, Rauchway shows how Wesley Mitchell compiling statistics in Washington, Charles Beard resigning in protest from Columbia, and Willard Straight shaping editorial policy at the New Republic all resisted the "he-man" authoritarianism and violent ultra-patriotism that historians have sometimes attributed to Progressivism's absolute capitulation to the war machine. Again the bellicose image of Theodore Roosevelt as Progressive masculine icon is undermined, and a more complicated picture emerges.
Still, while the book's characters hoped to preserve something of their pre-war mission, they could hardly remain unchanged. A younger, more hopeful Charles Beard had written that "One must somehow work from the family out to public activity" (p. 62); after the war the Beards would continue to write history with a reformist bent--the book concludes with the publication and reception of their supreme Progressive synthesis, The Rise of American Civilization (1927)--but they would do so not while embroiled in the ferment of downtown public activism, but mainly from the safe remove of their rural Connecticut refuge, and with a wary eye to the repressive qualities of a public "educated" and aroused by state propaganda. The Mitchells would retreat during the 1920s into the safely scientific production of statistical studies of child development and economics, abstractly "progressive" but insulated from actual social engagement and political risk. And Dorothy Straight (Willard having died just after the war's end) would abandon reform, marry a Briton, and remove her family to the splendid isolation of an English estate that enclosed their own (very private) progressive school. "The Progressive world shrank" after the war, and these families found themselves with "too much to do on their own doorstep" (p. 175)--the same doorstep from which they had earlier looked both inward and outward--to spend time tinkering with the sputtering engine of reform.
This book offers engaging portraits of the three marriages at its heart and frames its arguments about family, gender, and Progressive reform clearly and forcefully, grounding them effectively in the protagonists' private papers and letters as well as in their published works. Especially compelling are the narratives that show how experience and ideas intertwined in the development, for example, of Wesley Mitchell's critique of the money economy, and of Lucy Sprague Mitchell's educational theories. The picture of Progressivism is nuanced. Wesley Mitchell's insistence that "sounder organization" and "better training" were not in themselves "worthy social goals" is telling; for these characters, only in family relations were models of "worth while" goals to be found (p. 178). Rauchway establishes that these were not merely apostles of efficiency and order, but paternalists with a liberationist agenda. The attention to gender--to both female and male identities--is salutary, if perhaps not always as fully developed and supported as might be desired. For example, in what specific ways was a militantly patriotic letter criticizing the New Republic's political heterodoxy the effusion of a "he-man imagination" (p. 140)? Was all stridently nationalistic and repressive rhetoric by definition gendered "male" or hyper-masculine? Rauchway is also not fully persuasive on the liberal roots of the term "civilization," which he wishes to rescue from both politician Newt Gingrich and historian Gail Bederman. While he does establish the liberal thrust of usages such as the Beards', he dismisses in an endnote Bederman's argument that the discourse of "civilization" was redolent of racial hierarchy and of Rooseveltian strenuous masculinity. This seems a bit abrupt in a book that does not engage at all with racial thought or racial politics, subjects fraught with complexity for historians of this era. Rauchway does not shy from complexity on other matters, and it seems this one might have merited more of his attention. Were there borders beyond which the Progressive family simply could not serve as a model for social relations? Did any of Rauchway's figures address these issues?
This is finally a book about three cases that admirably sustain the author's argument. Presumably these cases were chosen for that reason. The other Progressive couples he mentions might repay further investigation, and this book might fruitfully be put into dialogue with, for example, the literature on socialist marriages of the same era, and with Christine Stansell's American Moderns, which devotes considerable space to the analysis of marriage, work, and activism among New York couples who were more bohemian and more politically radical than Rauchway's lot, but who also grappled with similar issues. Finally, in a book that emphasizes the interactions between particular lives and the making of ideas, it seems a shame that there are no photographs; the six major characters and their families remain disembodied shadows in the reader's mind. Still, Rauchway excels at capturing the genuine excitement of ideas and the atmosphere of possibility in pre-war Progressive circles: the Mitchells, the Beards, and the Straights felt themselves to be members of a community poised on the edge of major changes, a "humming hive" of happy and industrious builders of the future (p. 122). If they were wrong, and if their strategies for change were flawed, they retain a claim on our imaginations as we try to understand their fertile and complex era. Ultimately, Rauchway shows us in quite specific ways how Progressive thought was not just about expanding the power of the state, and that family values, whatever their connotations in recent political debate, were once the province of Progressives.
. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, ed., Who Were the Progressives? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002).
. Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
. On socialist women, see Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), and Sally Miller, ed., Flawed Liberation: Socialism and Feminism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981). Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001).
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Mark Pittenger. Review of Rauchway, Eric, The Refuge of Affections: Family and American Reform Politics, 1900-1920.
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